Exploring Medieval Music with Multimedia Slideshows

Dec 8, 2016 | 30th Anniversary, blog | 0 comments

Centuries ago, music wasn’t always just written on a page. During the Middle Ages, music could also be lovingly illustrated using brightly colored paintings and gold leaf to depict the story that the songs were about.

“It’s medieval multimedia,” explains Shawn Keener, a University of Chicago trained music historian who has been creating slideshows using original source material for the Newberry Consort’s medieval concerts for the last few years.

The presentations combine supertitle translations with close-up details of these visually compelling works, giving audiences a peek into this medieval world.

“Elaborate manuscripts like those containing the music of Roman de Fauvel and the Cantigas de Santa Maria were luxury items produced for high officials or monarchs. Each one is a monument, in a way,” Keener says. “The performative music and poetry they contain were public, in a certain sense, but as objects, the manuscripts were also private. Close them and put them on a shelf, and no one would suspect the glories within.”

Incorporating these artifacts into Newberry Consort performances gives audiences a fuller experience of the original works. “Scholars and performers of early music study primary sources as a matter of course,” she says. “These slideshows bring audiences along with us. I want them to feel like they’re at the desk, too, poring over a 13th– or 14th-century manuscript.”

For example, Keener says, if you were sitting at a desk poring over one of the Cantigas manuscripts, you’d first see a large drawing on the left hand side of the page featuring six scenes depicted in the song. In the Fauvel manuscript, there are elaborate illuminations showing pictures of a donkey dressed up as a king to explain the story’s characters as well as some of the jokes in the piece.

The images Keener uses for the slideshow are taken from facsimiles of the manuscripts, either published in book form or digitized and available online. This year, for the upcoming performance of music by the early-15th-century German nobleman Oswald von Wolkenstein, none of his manuscripts were available digitally, so she had to find facsimiles through the Newberry Library’s lending libraries.

Once she has the images, Keener creates a PowerPoint presentation that matches the illustrations and the supertitle translations with the music the Newberry Consort is playing live. The slideshow is projected on a large screen above the performers so the audience can follow what the singers are singing about.

“The trick is to be visually compelling but unobtrusive,” Keener says. “It’s a fun challenge to make a presentation that’s lavish without drawing too much attention to itself.”

“I love being able to take people visually into these primary sources,” she says. “When you have primary sources with incredible visual elements to them… the slideshows are a way of bringing the audience that much closer to the object.”

See the next multimedia presentation at the Newberry Consort’s performances on Jan. 13-15 at the Newberry Library, the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago and the Galvin Recital Hall at Northwestern University.

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